Catholics urged to contribute to state’s water quality conversation

| Bridget Ryder | August 22, 2017 | 1 Comment

Minneapolis city employees head back to shore after checking on sailboats on Lake Calhoun Aug. 20. In an effort to help keep the water clean on the Minneapolis city lake, which has seen both high levels of pollutants and an infestation of Eurasian watermilfoil, Minneapolis has prohibited the use of outboard motors, except by its employees. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Minnesota may be the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but half in the southern part of the state are too polluted for swimming and fishing.

Gov. Mark Dayton wants that to change, and he’s calling on Minnesotans to help by attending water-focused, town hall-style meetings underway across the state. The Minnesota Catholic Conference hopes Catholics participate.

The 10 meetings are “an opportunity to discuss the water quality issues facing their local communities and our state, to hear from experts and to engage with policymakers,” said Shawn Peterson, MCC associate director for public policy.

“I hope people will be able to learn about issues facing this precious resource, connect with others in their community around the issue and offer a compelling Catholic voice for improving the state’s water quality,” he said.

The meetings are part of Dayton’s 25 by 2025 Water Quality Goal, which seeks to improve the state’s overall water quality 25 percent in the next eight years. There are three town halls slated for the metro area: Sept. 26 in Minneapolis, Oct. 4 in Burnsville and Oct. 5 in Stillwater.

Current regulation aims to improve the state’s water quality slightly, but long-term overall water quality will decrease unless something is done, experts warn.

Water quality town halls
6:30-8:30 p.m. Sept. 26
Minneapolis Urban League, 2100 Plymouth Ave. N.Burnsville
6:30-8:30 p.m. Oct. 4
Diamondhead Education Center, 200 W Burnsville Pkwy.

6:30-8:30 p.m. Oct. 5
Stillwater High School, 5701 Stillwater Blvd N.

For more information about water quality and public policy, visit

Why water?

“Water is not just another commodity. It is essential for life, and flows through the most basic staples of human activity,” MCC states on its website with resources for Catholics on the issue, including a two-page handout, “Making Sure our Water Works.”

The document acknowledges that it’s easy for Minnesotans to take water for granted because it’s ubiquitous and part of the state’s cultural heritage.

It calls water “a gift from the Creator that has been entrusted to our stewardship.” “Water runs through every aspect of human activity,” it states. “It is the common ingredient in all food growth and preparation. It’s used to clean both our clothes and our bodies. And it provides an enjoyable medium for recreation, as we spend quality time swimming, fishing and boating with our loved ones. In fact, 60 percent of our bodies are water. There can be no life without water.”

The document points to Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’, On the Care of Our Common Home,” in which the pope called water “a basic and universal human right.”

The MCC document includes alarming statistics from reports of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Center for Rural Policy and Development and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, including that rising salt levels may make it impossible for metro lakes to sustain native fish and plants by 2050.

“Water pollution and inadequate treatment facilities may seem like localized problems, but they can affect us all,” the document states. “If left untreated, polluted water can flow downstream, affecting our urban areas. And polluted lakes and rivers will take a toll on tourism in rural Minnesota, creating a broader ripple effect that could negatively impact Minnesota’s economy.”

The public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota, MCC backed several pieces of proposed legislation during the last legislative session that aimed to fund clean water initiatives and recognize it as a basic human right.

Pollution, infrastructure problems

The most pressing problems, Peterson told The Catholic Spirit, are pollution and aging water infrastructure.

In the next 20 years, upgrading and meeting the demands placed on water infrastructure — such as wastewater treatment plants or stormwater systems — will require $20 billion. This is expected to hit rural communities hardest, he said.

Meanwhile, nutrient contamination from nitrates and phosphorous have made as many as half of the lakes in southern Minnesota unsuitable for swimming, according to a 2015 report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. These nutrients cause the notorious blue-green algae that can plague lakes in summer, killing dogs and sickening swimmers.

The algal blooms also have repercussions on treated drinking water, forcing facilities to adapt their process to reduce taste and odor issues. Jodi Wallin, public information officer for St. Paul Regional Water Services, said its process has been successful “to the point where most customers are unaware of any changes in the source water quality before treatment.”

New technologies are also needed to address emergent contaminants, such as pharmaceuticals including antibiotics and mood stabilizers, that are passed into waterways through treated wastewater.

The dirtier rivers and lakes are, the more effort and money it takes to clean water for drinking. In the metro region, excessive nutrient pollution hasn’t become a problem yet, but in Minnesota 159 public water supply wells — 6.3 percent — have concerningly high nitrate levels, and 30 percent of the public water supply is at risk for contamination.

One of the biggest sources of nutrient pollution statewide is chemical runoff from farms. Within the Twin Cities’ urban watershed, however, households are the greatest culprit, causing 10 times more nitrate and phosphorous pollution than golf courses and college campuses, according to a University of Minnesota study published in April. Substances such as detergents contribute to pollution, but the main contributions come from nitrogen fertilizer and pet waste.

Not ‘organic vs. conventional practices’

Learning these facts — as well as regular contact with farmers — has compelled Jim Ennis to change his lawn care habits.

“I had never thought of how I could reduce runoff on my lawn until I started working with farmers,” said Ennis, executive director of St. Paul-based Catholic Rural Life.

Because of their many impermeable surfaces, urban areas have little buffer zone to absorb excess chemicals before they reach rivers and lakes. In a city, a heavy rain washes lawn chemicals and pet waste straight into storm drains. Farmers, however, are usually careful to watch the weather when applying fertilizer, because they don’t want it to be washed away. Ennis now watches the weather, too, and also applies less fertilizer, sacrificing some lushness of his lawn for the sake of water quality.

Farmers, meanwhile, are working to improve their methods.

The agriculture industry — from researchers to seed companies to farmers on the land — are just beginning to integrate and support practices that contribute to water quality, said Matthew Fitzgerald, a member of the Central Minnesota Young Farmers Collation and a former parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Paul.

“We are just at the forefront of this conversation,” he said. “We are just at the beginning of learning what to do about clean water.”

After attending college and then working as a corn merchant and later in financial services in the Twin Cities, Fitzgerald, 25, purchased an 80-acre organic grain farm earlier this year near his parents’ farm in Glencoe.

As a farmer, he is learning better practices and just began the process of becoming a Clean Water Certified Farm, a voluntary process through the state’s Department of Agriculture. A number of farms in the Metro Region Soil and Water Conservation District have already become certified. Through the process, farmers receives feedback on improving practices to protect water quality. The farm is then scored; a high score earns the certification and regulatory shelter for 10 years.

The proactive measure aims to help improve water quality and gives farmers support and security as they face changes needed to address growing water challenges.

Fitzgerald compares the “water movement” to the local and organic food movement and his own experience living in the city, including the growing pains of figuring out how to buy local food and stay within budget.

Fitzgerald hopes the conversation around water doesn’t fall into the false tension of conventional versus organic farming. Depending on their specific practices, an organic farmer may contribute more to water contamination than a conventional farmer, he said.

What’s needed, he said, are bridge builders.

“People of faith are especially poised to build coalitions, to go beyond ourselves,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that half of all of Minnesota’s lakes are too polluted for fishing and swimming. The story has been corrected to reflect that half of the lakes in the state’s southern half are polluted to this extent, according to a 2015 report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The Catholic Spirit apologizes for the error.

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